Last weekend, my family canned tomatoes. If you’ve never made homemade tomato juice, sauce or whole tomatoes, you probably don’t know that hot tomatoes smell. The scent gets into your clothes, your hair and your skin. No amount of scrubbing gets rid of the tomato. I’ll forever smell like the acidic redness.
But once a year, my sisters and I get guilt-tripped by our mother into canning tomatoes. And we suffer in the sweltering kitchen, all wearing “great-aunt Lucielle’s” homemade aprons. I’ve never met my great-great aunt Lucile because I’m pretty sure she died in the 1970s, way before I was born. But because my great-great aunt and her daughters, their daughters and my mother and her sisters all canned tomatoes together, we all have to can tomatoes together.
The first step is to wash all the tomatoes and separate the good from the bad. My aunt Laura always has to sort through each tomato herself, as she insists on making sure the tomatoes are up to par. Each tomato is carefully checked over for bad spots and for color. Bad tomatoes can ruin an entire jar of tomato soup. Just one, small rotten tomato can ruin an entire good thing that you spent time laboring over.
Next, the tomatoes have to be cooked. You can do this by filling up a large pot with quartered tomatoes and small amount of water and boiling them. It amazes me every time that the pot is quickly filled with water, even though I’ve only added the tiniest amount. This is where the smell comes into play. Hot tomatoes reek like three-day dead road kill. I cannot stand the smell of them. But in the end, I still eat them even though I know they smell like complete garbage when boiling.
Growing up, my job was the tomato squisher, which is the next step. Starting as early as age 5, I got to stand on the chair and squish the hot and cooked tomatoes with a plastic plunger and crank the handle on the gear. Tomatoes go into the funnel and juice comes out the other end.
But there’s another exit on the machine. All the gunk of tomato skins and seeds get smushed into a paste. It’s gross, but fascinating. It’s what is left of the tomato after all the juice is squeezed out. But in my family, nothing goes to waste. That garbage which we will eventually throw out, has to be squeezed once more through the machine to get every last drop of tomato juice. There’s a large amount that comes out the second time. It proves that everything has worth, even when I insist that I don’t have to run it through again because the tomato has no juice left in it.
Finally, you fill hot jars with the hot tomato juice, cover them with hot lids and screw on the rings. Place the jars in the pressure cooker and wait until you hear the whistle blow. My favorite part is hearing the lids pop while they are cooling; that is the way we know we have a job well done.
This process isn’t anything new to my life or my family. Every summer since I can remember, we’ve made tomato sauce at my grandpa’s house. And the same tradition occurred way before I or even my mother existed. It’s something that is distinctly old-world, brought over and handed down from generation to generation. It was much easier to can something with heat and store it that way because it stayed for months, not days. Canning isn’t popular anymore because it’s not needed. Anyone can run down to the grocery store and buy a can of whole tomatoes or juice for less than two dollars.
Someday, this tradition will be left up to my sisters and I. Well, mainly me. Even though I gripe and complain every year, I know that growing vegetables and canning them is a family tradition and I should keep it up. I probably even end up forcing my future children to help just like my mom and aunts have done to my generation and their mother did to their generation. It’s a family bonding experience.
I get to hear stories from my mother and her sisters about my extended family, stories about these people I’ve never met because they’ve been gone long before I was born. My grandmother died when I was just two years old.
Canning tomatoes is a way for me to connect with these family members that I’ve never met.